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Under Your Skin

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The social duties incumbent on the necromantic heir of the Fifth House were extensive, and often tedious. Abigail had never enjoyed them, but she'd always said that attending a few parties now and again was a small price to pay indeed, for the title that could get her access to all sorts of historical artifacts the other Houses kept in their securest vaults. So she soldiered on, with a very proper Fifth fortitude, through all manner of engagements she'd rather have skipped in favor of curling up with a nice cup of tea and a scrap of doggerel from the dawn of time.

Tonight, though, her fortitude seemed to be failing her. They'd been in attendance at Lady Cincoros' birthday ball for less than an hour, and Magnus had started to notice that Abigail moved stiffly, with none of her usual brisk efficiency, and her eyes were glassy and unfocused even when the conversation turned to necromantic subjects, as it often did. She'd been shut away doing a complex series of exorcisms all day; perhaps she was more deeply exhausted than she'd let on, even to him.

He drew her aside after he’d had to step in and smooth over the fact that she’d clearly forgotten the name of Lady Cincoros’ oldest son, who was of an age with Abigail’s brother and who she’d known for twenty years. “All right, we've made the rounds now, Abby," he said in her ear. "Let's go home."

"No!" she snapped with unexpected fierceness, and something a little like panic. Then, mastering herself again, "No, I'd very much like to stay. There's so much…life here. And I'm hungry."

He eyed the faint beginnings of a pinkish sheen at her temples and blotted it with his handkerchief. "Another hour, then home to rest. You're not yourself."

"No, you're quite right," Abigail said, and smiled. For just a split second the candlelight gleamed unnervingly on that smile, showing teeth too sharp and somehow too crowded in her jaw; then a pair of chattering couples passed in front of the candelabra on the sideboard, casting cheerful shadows, and in their wake the distortion was gone.

"You're really working far too hard," Magnus scolded her gently, taking her arm and leading her towards the buffet table, out of the main current of the crowd. "All necromancy and no relaxation will be the death of you."

"I'm sure it will," Abigail replied. Her previous panic had entirely vanished, and now she spoke with a flat serenity.

"Well, come on, try to relax then," Magnus said jovially. "Will you honor me with a dance?"

He bowed formally with his left hand behind his back and accepted her curtsey in return. As she took his proffered right hand, he worked his left thumb under the hilt of the ornamental dagger at his hip, easing it out of the scabbard far enough to slice his palm open on a few inches of blade. Before she noticed what he was about, he slipped his left arm around her waist and dragged a broad smear of his own fresh blood down the back of her dress, from the nape of her neck to the base of her spine.

"What," she said, brows furrowing faintly. Then the blood soaked through the thin layers of cloth and touched the skin underneath, where a set of interlocking ghost wards had been scarified when she was twelve. Her lips peeled away from her teeth as though flayed, her head dropped back at an angle that should have pulverized her first few cervical vertebrae, and she screamed.

It was an unearthly, oscillating howl of unspeakable torment that should not have been even remotely possible in a human throat. It vibrated the crystal chandelier and made the gleaming silverware quake on the tables. It even turned a few heads, as the necromancers nearest them glanced over with sympathetic murmurs and, in the case of Duke Cincoros, mild scorn -- but he was a shiftless, miserly old man and nobody paid him any mind.

Abigail was locked in a kind of seizure, every muscle in her body taut and hard as granite. Something that was only probably muscle twitched visibly under the skin of her neck, as though her throat were spasming, though she was no longer making any sound. Magnus eased her down to the floor with his bleeding hand still between her shoulderblades. Underneath her the tiles flared with reflected blue fire as the wards blazed through her dress, feeding off the thalergy flow from his veins. "There now, love, that's it," he murmured. "You teach them what comes of crossing Lady Abigail Pent. No manners, these ghosts. You give 'em a little what-for. Show them we'll not have this nonsense in the House of the Fifth."

Her slack jaw contorted, her eyes pulsed with blue fire, and she vomited up a fist-sized clump of something very like coal stuck together with bloody cinder and ash. It hit the floor with an unseemly splat. Magnus carefully rearranged himself and his wife to avoid getting any of it on their shoes; he'd lost three pairs to hauntings already this month.

Abigail relaxed out of the rigor spiritus, going nearly limp in his arms. "Oh, goodness, that feels much better. I'm so sorry, dear. I didn't scorch you at all, did I?"

Magnus gave them both a quick once-over. "No, don't think so. Rough exorcism, then?"

"Absolutely dreadful," Abigail agreed. She let him help her back to her feet and accepted his warm kiss on the cheek with a wan smile. "There must have been at least three separate revenants in the poor beast. It was the third one that got me -- slipped past my wards while I was dealing with the other two. I was trying to warn you, but it had a pretty tight grip on me. My own fault. What made you realize it was a haunting?"

"Used the 'you aren't yourself' line," Magnus said brightly. "It couldn't resist showing its hand. Works every time."

A waiter approached with a small silver tray bearing a handkerchief and a glass of brandy. "Welcome back, Lady Pent," he said with a small bow. "Sir Quinn, will you require --?"

"No, no, this will do, thank you." Magnus handed the brandy to Abigail, who threw it back in one shot and shuddered, but looked a great deal revived. She bound up the cut on his hand with the handkerchief, and the waiter retreated. Already a few junior adepts were scurrying forward to draw containment wards around the quivering malevolent black organ on the floor. Abigail lingered a moment to give them thanks and instructions, then turned and let Magnus take her arm, this time without any theatrics.

He said thoughtfully, "One day I fear we may encounter a ghost who won't succumb to dramatic irony. We may be in real trouble then."

"The Emperor forfend," Abigail said fervently.

"Would you still like to stay? The canapes aren't half bad, though they also aren't half as good as mine, meaning no disrespect to our kind hosts."

"I'd eat grave dirt to get the taste of that creature out of my mouth," she said with deep conviction. Magnus grinned and started to move away towards the heavily-laden table of fanciful pastries, then looked back as Abigail caught his hand. "And after that I think I could stand a dance or two."

He kissed the back of her hand. "Well, as long as you save one for me."